Under Pennsylvania law, where a marriage is void or voidable, a party may bring an action in annulment rather than divorce. At first glance, that just sounds like semantics – however, there is a significant legal ramification if a marriage is void rather than voidable.
What is a void marriage?
A void marriage occurs where there is some form of impediment to the marriage having taken place at all (ie the marriage never existed under the law).
Grounds for a void marriage exist where:
- Where either party at the time of such marriage had an existing spouse whom they hadn’t divorced and is not presumed dead;
- The parties share a certain degree of blood relation (1st cousins or closer);
- One or both parties were incapable of consenting to the divorce due to a lack of mental capacity; or
- The parties assert a common law marriage but were under the age of 18 at its commencement.
These “marriages” are prohibited under Pennsylvania law and treated as though no marriage existed. While void marriages are in no way common, they are most prevalently discussed where one spouse was previously married in another country and it is unclear whether or not a divorce occurred prior to their second marriage.
What is a voidable marriage?
A voidable marriage exists where the parties are legally married, but for some reason, the marriage should be set aside.
Specifically, a voidable marriage exists where:
- Either party was under the age of 16;
- Either party was under the age of 18 and did not seek parental authorization;
- Either party was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and an action for annulment is commenced within 60 days of the marriage ceremony;
- Either party was impotent and unless the condition is known to the other party prior to marriage; or
- One party was induced to enter the marriage due to fraud, duress, and coercion.
Under this scenario, there is an actual marriage that can be set aside for one of the foregoing reasons. If you thought of Ross and Rachel’s Las Vegas marriage on Friends, you are on exactly the right track.
Why does the distinction matter?
To put it plainly, where a marriage is void no marriage existed at all, whereas with a voidable marriage, the parties were in fact married but for some reason should not be.
Under Pennsylvania law, where a marriage is voidable the parties were married and entitled to economic claims as though they were going through a normal divorce.
Alternatively, where a marriage is void there can be no economic claims between the parties, meaning they don’t need to separate property like they would in a divorce action. There is no marital property to separate because a marriage did not exist. As a result, the parties are only entitled to the assets titled in their name alone. Any jointly titled assets are owned as joint tenants.
It is a high burden to prove that a marriage is void, however, if someone successfully litigates their claim it can result in a huge financial disparity between the parties upon separation.